Secret identities—they’re not just for superheroes anymore.
The secret identities we’re familiar with from comic books represent extreme contrasts of personality. Wonder Woman conceals her wild Amazon powers in the buttoned-up persona of Diana Prince. Batman shrouds his vigilante anger in the glib playboy personality of Bruce Wayne. Superman hides his alien invincibility behind the role of mild-mannered, bespectacled Clark Kent.
(Although I never quite bought that last one…a pair of heavy-framed glasses do not a clever disguise make.)
Giving your hero or heroine a secret identity is a great way to add complexity and depth. But to make it believable, you’ll want to go with something a little bit subtler than you’d find in a comic book.
Let’s say your heroine, Alexis, is a lawyer who’s burning the candle at both ends to make partner…but she volunteers to teach disadvantaged children how to read on the weekends. To her coworkers, she’s the hotshot prosecutor who never loses a case. Her colleagues would be shocked to learn that, each Saturday morning, Alexis becomes the nice lady who helps Tommy sound out all the words in Where the Wild Things Are.
The key is to choose a secret identity that contrasts with the character’s primary role—something that demonstrates a contradiction in her personality. What’s the primary quality Alexis is displaying in her public identity? Ruthlessness. So we want to reveal the opposite quality in her secret identity: compassion.
Once you know the character’s secret identity, you need to find a way to reconcile it with her public identity. How can she be both ruthless and compassionate?
Maybe Alexis struggled with undiagnosed dyslexia as a child, and was humiliated by a bad teacher for her poor reading skills.
Or maybe she was seen as a problem child by the principal, because her illiterate mother wasn’t able to write her an excuse note when she was sick or sign off on her progress reports.
You can probably think of a dozen other reasons a lawyer might volunteer to teach reading to children.
If we’re talking about a minor character, just giving them an interesting secret identity and reconciling it with their public identity is enough.
But for your main characters, you’ll want to go a step further: tie the secret identity to the character’s flaw or wound via a defining traumatic event.
What’s Alexis’ flaw? It has to be something that fits with both her public identity and her secret identity.
Let’s say you decided Alexis was dyslexic. What if she flunked fifth grade, and had to repeat it while all of her friends advanced to junior high? What if all of those so-called friends snubbed her while she repeated fifth grade and bullied her when she followed them to junior high a year later? What if all the rumors those bullies spread caused the boy of her dreams to publicly reject Alexis when she asked him to the Sadie Hawkins dance?
You can see how Alexis might fall prey to the belief that she’ll never be good enough. And how she might swear that she will do whatever it takes to become good enough.
The negative belief is her flaw, and the vow she takes is how she compensates for that flaw. The reason she’s so aggressive in the courtroom and so competitive with her colleagues is because she’s desperately trying to prove to everyone (and herself) that she is good enough. She’s trying to prove that those ex-friends who bullied her were wrong.
At the same time that this flaw gives rise to her public identity, it also gives rise to her secret identity: Alexis knows how painful it is to be called “stupid” for not being able to read, and she can’t bear to stand by and watch it happen to others. The same experience that drives her to be ruthless at work also compels her to be compassionate to those she perceives as being like her.
To sum up, here’s a series of questions to help you create a great secret identity for any character:
1. What is this character’s public identity?
2. What is the primary quality or trait that the character displays through their public identity?
3. What is the opposite quality or trait?
4. What kind of secret identity would exemplify that opposite quality or trait?
5. How can I reconcile the character’s public and secret identities?
6. How can I tie the character’s public and secret identities into his or her flaw via a defining traumatic event?